Monday, May 30, 2011

Scattered NBA thoughts

This has been the greatest season that I’ve ever watched, both the regular season and the playoffs. We haven’t had a boatload overtime games and game sevens (the spring of 2006 remains tops in that regard), but in terms of the quality of play and the number of transcendent individual performances that we’ve seen, nothing tops this year’s postseason, at least nothing from my lifetime as a basketball fan. To recap:

-Chris Paul reminded us that he’s still the best point guard alive and put on a clinic for how the position is meant to be played.

-Carmelo Anthony showed us why he’s the most unstoppable scorer on the planet when he’s going all out and playing aggressively, unleashing a barrage that rivaled LeBron’s 2007 heroics.

-Brandon Roy temporarily resurrected his career on Easter Weekend, almost singlehandedly leading a comeback for the ages and giving blazer fans hope that he can rehab his knees and still contribute as a scorer off the bench as a Paul Pierce-lite type of player.

-Dwight’s 48-19 in a game one loss to Atlanta exposed how amazing Dwight is (and how flawed his supporting cast is), showing the flaws behind using team wins as the primary metric in MVP voting.

-Rajon Rondo pulled an Isiah Thomas, shaking off a dislocated elbow to lead the Celtics to victory in game 3 vs. Miami, a courageous display of his toughness and will to win.

-We all Neal before Gary when it comes to ridiculous, out-of-nowhere, do-or-die last-second shots.

-Zach Randolph put the finishing touches on a splendid series against the Spurs with a 31-11 closeout game (including 17 in the fourth quarter), presenting exhibit A of why teams continue taking chances upon chances with uber-talented knuckleheads.

-Kevin Durant’s 16 straight points in the game five closeout of Denver gave us a glimpse of what an unstoppable scorer and crunch time assassin that he’ll be when he puts it all together.

-General Grievis (Vasquez) put in a miracle, triple OT shot in one of the most ridiculous and exhilarating playoff games of the last 25 years.

-Dirk’s shooting in game one against Seattle was beyond unfair, as if he had set the game to rookie mode and turned up all the shooting bars to the maximum value. He was so damn good that Kevin Durant scored 40 points and was completely overshadowed.

Other than that nothing very eventful has happened in these playoffs. With that here are my scattered thoughts on a few of the recent storylines.

On Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the future of the Seattle Supersonics: Kevin Durant is amazing; he’s a scoring machine when he’s got it going, the rare player who can stroke it from 25 feet and get to the free throw line with regularity. That being said, he’s not blameless when it comes to their loss, and there are a few things that he has to get better at. First of all he has to get stronger – Shawn Marion regularly played him physically and forced him to catch the ball from 25 feet out instead of 18, which makes a huge difference to how well he can score and run the offense; Durant should see how Dirk refused to let Nick Collison push him off of his spots, and make the necessary adjustments. He also needs to refine his post moves and footwork on the block so that teams can’t guard him with Jason Kidd and Deshawn Stevenson. More importantly, he simply has to become a more assertive player. What happened in game five vs. Denver? That should be happening down the stretch of every single playoff game. All four of Seattle’s losses to Dallas were winnable games, but the Sonics couldn’t close out any of them because Dallas’s offensive execution was light years ahead of Seattle’s. First Seattle failed to finish off a torrid comeback in game 3 because once they cut it down to 4 points their offense devolved into a series of contested 3-pointers with 20 seconds left on the shot-clock. In games 4 and 5 Seattle had leads with 2 minutes to go and couldn’t close the door because they couldn’t execute their sets and get good shots, allowing Dallas to work its offensive magic and cut the leads. Dirk made sure he got to all his spots, made sure his teammates either got him the ball whenever possible. By contrast Durant let his teammates shoot them out of the game down the stretch because he was floating on the perimeter most of the time and wasn’t aggressively demanding the ball. Part of what we love about Durant is that he’s so humble and isn’t interested in self-promotion; but you can’t allow those traits to define you during crunch time when your team is looking to you to be assertive and dominant. I’m not saying he has to be a Kobe-like ball hog; think more of Tim Duncan, who’s also wired with Durant’s humble persona, but knows when he needs to become an absolute killer on the court and impress himself on the game. I don’t think that Durant lacks for competitiveness; he just needs time and experience to master when being selfish is a good thing. I have ultimate faith that KD will work his ass off over the summer and take care of all of these things by November. He wants to win as much as anyone, and he’ll realize that these are all the things that are necessary for him to take the next step.

On the flip side Russell Westbrook, as has been noted between 5 and 10 billion times by anyone who follows basketball, has the exact opposite problem of not knowing when to stop shooting. First of all let me defend him by saying that his aggressiveness works two ways: his aggressiveness prevents their offense from getting too stagnant (even Durant can be guilty of not attacking the rim enough; that’s never a problem with Russ), he gets them easy points by drawing fouls and getting them into the penalty, and overall when you consider his defense, rebounding, and scoring I would say he brings much more to the table than he takes off. Obviously his shot selection needs work. It needs a lot of work – he has to recognize when to get the ball to Durant at the end of games. But I don’t view that as a product of him being selfish, more like him being a young kid who’s still learning the position (he played off the ball at UCLA and has never played point guard in a high pressure environment like the 2nd and 3rd round of the NBA playoffs), someone who wants to win more than anything but doesn’t know how. At least not yet. The Stephon Marbury comparisons are so beyond ridiculous – there’s a difference between inexperience and selfishness. When has Westbrook even hinted at putting himself above the team? Would Marbury EVER be ok with being benched for the fourth quarter of a game? Westbrook is a bad decision-maker; he’s not a bad teammate or a bad apple.

With all that being said, the Sonics are in a FANTASTIC position for the future; both their stars are just 22, already all-star caliber players with room to improve (scary, isn’t it?), have tasted playoff success and now have an idea of what it takes. James Harden showed that he might be the ideal 2-guard to play with Westbrook, i.e. someone who can handle the ball, run the offense, hit guys in all their spots, make sure everyone gets the shots they need, but also a score well enough when the situation dictates that he gets his. I was never a big harden fan when he was out here in Tempe, but he flashed serious Manu Ginobili-esque potential this Spring, and his permanent insertion into the starting lineup will improve their offensive fluidity. They have cap room to add a solid veteran (perhaps someone like Tayshaun Prince, Caron Butler, Samuel Dalembert, etc.) and at this point I am probably picking them to win the West next year. They have all the talent, and hopefully for them they will learn how to close games from these playoffs. It kills me to see Clay Bennett enjoy this kind of success (I’m still hoping karma rears its ugly head and Durant and Westbrook demand trades to teams whose owners don’t reside in the 8th circle of hell), but I can’t deny how talented and primed for a breakthrough they are.

On Derrick Rose: I have nothing but respect for him after he improved vastly this year and led the bulls to the East Finals. He’s a great player, top-five point guard whose ceiling is virtually unlimited. Given his history and work ethic, I see no reason to believe that he won’t improve as a defender or passer or become a more efficient scorer. The physical skills, leadership, and everything you look for is there.

That being said, while he is beyond reproach when graded on a curve, he hasn’t been perfect in the playoffs. His shooting percentages were low throughout the playoffs and dipped to some pretty bad numbers against Miami. While his effort was valiant in games 3-5, his play (especially down the stretch) was erratic at best, downright awful at worst. Obviously a lot of that has to do with his team’s limited offensive weapons, but there were games when Boozer and Deng were both scoring efficiently and rose simply didn’t get the job done. There were too many turnovers and bad shots that he took during crunch time plays. I’m not denying that part of it is that he needs more help, but Rose also has to get better. And I have no doubt that he will get better, just don’t tell me that he’s totally blameless. Speaking of which….

On the Lebron/Rose debate and Ric Bucher’s cluelessness: Let me preface this by saying that I don’t hate Derrick Rose. I respect the hell out of him and think he’s a wonderful player. But when LeBron haters like Bucher make idiotic arguments like the ones he made recently, then I can’t help but call bullshit. Basically he went on the Le Batard show and stated that he thinks Rose is the better basketball player than Lebron. Not more valuable, just straight up better. I’m pretty sure even most Bulls fans wouldn’t make this argument, but for those who agree with Bucher here’s my case for Lebron: it’s simple, he’s flat out better on both ends of the court. He contributes in more ways, and everything he does he does better than Rose. LeBron’s PER is about 4 points higher, a fairly sizable margin that doesn’t take into account LeBron’s superior defense. LeBron scores more efficiently (better true shooting and effective field goal percentages, gets to the rim easier in my opinion, better post-up game), is the slightly better passer, a much better rebounder, and a SIGNIFICANTLY better defensive player. It’s really not that close on that end of the court – Rose is ok with his on-ball defense and gets a few more blocks than you would expect from someone his size. But he doesn’t even come close to LeBron, best perimeter defender since Pippen and one of the five best defensive players alive. Lebron demonstrated his on-ball defensive prowess at the end of game 4 when he personally shut down Derrick Rose. Normally Rose feasts of guys in isolation because nobody has the quickness to stay in front of him, especially with today’s rules against hand checking. He saw LeBron, and he tried to make a move to get by him…and he tried again…and he just…could…not…shake…LeBron; this is a 6-8, 260 lbs. guy who is still somehow athletic enough to stay in front of the most explosive point guard in the league. You saw the bewilderment and hopelessness in Rose’s eyes when he realized LeBron was too good defensively to get beat in isolation, leading Rose to hoist up a pair of contested jumpers. Once we start talking about all the blocks (and I’m not just talking about all the transition layups that LeBron prevents by pinning the ball against the backboard; think of all the times he jumped flat-footed and still managed to block Noah and Boozer at the rim like a dad swatting his kid’s shot out of the driveway; name me five guys who can do that AND guard Rose as mentioned above), the steals/disruption of passing lanes, and his help defense/rotations (most great defenses start with the man in the middle, but Miami’s defense is a top-3 unit mostly because LeBron and Wade cover so much damn ground and can rotate so pristinely; Rose may be a decent individual defender but he’s not the guy responsible for Chicago having the best defense), I really have no idea where Bucher gets the notion that Rose is a better defensive player than LeBron. There are very few players in the history of the game that could legitimately guard 5 positions in any era. Lebron is in that class and Rose most certainly is not. Honestly Bucher’s argument is so ridiculous that if you haven’t head Bucher’s interview then I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I just made this shit up and put words in his mouth.

The Rose apologists/LeBron haters will always go back to the same core principles: 1.stats are completely meaningless (first of all they’re not; sometimes our subjective desires cloud our judgment and allow us to interpret what we see to conform to what we want to be true rather than what is actually true; I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes my Blazer-colored glasses prevent me from seeing truth, and that’s why stats are useful – they’re the unfettered, they’re unbiased, and unlike humans they don’t come with any pre-existing dogmas or dead-set beliefs. Stats don’t tell the entire picture, and no stat head worth his salt will ever make that claim; but they do tell a significant part of the story that our subjective interpretations sometimes miss due to our own desires and cognitive dissonance. At some point people like Bucher, Simmons, et. Al. have to stop being so dismissive of the value of advance stats in the case of Derrick Rose because they tell a portion of the story that his defenders refuse to see or believe; besides, if it’s true, as the claim that stats can be manipulated to say anything, then why has no one been able to come up with a convincing statistical argument in favor or rose being better than LeBron? Perhaps because no such argument exists and the statistical portion of this analysis pretty much unanimously favors LeBron?) And 2.Rose’s teammates suck and that automatically excuses any poor play. It’s a fair point that Rose’s teammates force him to shoulder an incredibly large burden. But if you’re going to go there, then you can’t ignore how much LeBron had to shoulder in Cleveland, especially before 2008 when he dragged teams deep into the playoffs that had no business even making the second round. In fact, let’s review:

2006: He drags a roster without a single other player in the top 10 at his position to the second round, where he almost singlehandedly wins the series and ultimately takes a juggernaut Detroit team (remember, they were the two-time defending Eastern Conference champs and had flirted with 70 wins during the 2005-06 season) to a seventh game when they probably shouldn’t have won more than one game.

2007: Almost the same roster as the previous year (no significant upgrades in terms of talent), this time Lebron somehow pulls them into the finals, beating out a significantly superior Detroit squad (his detractors conveniently forget this season, especially this performance when calling him “un-clutch”; alert me when Derrick Rose, someone who’s clutch prowess has been repeatedly praised by the media – or at least by Bucher – pulls out something like that). Looking back at the roster it’s an absolute miracle that they made the finals; not a single other shot creator, not a single above average rebounder or defender (Anderson Varejao wasn’t half the player in 2007 that he was now), basically nobody other than LeBron that would start for the 2011 Bulls. Basically at the same age that Rose is now, Lebron dragged a worse team to the finals and put up better numbers in his playoff run than Rose did this year. This alone should destroy Bucher’s argument.

2008: some internal improvement, a couple trades to improve the roster, still not an impressive bunch. They meet Boston in the second round and get to seven games against a better roster, and instead of shooting under 40% in the closeout game LeBron flirts with 50 and damn near wins game seven on the road by himself.

2009: Finally gets some roster upgrades (and by “upgrades” I mean Mo Williams; funny how the guy never made an all-star game, started playing off the ball and catching passes from LeBron and made his only all-star game), wins 66 games with a crew probably suited for more like 48-50 (believe me I watched all their games that year, their offensive playbook was give it to LeBron at the top of the key and let him go to work), averages a 37.4 PER in the playoffs (I don’t care how flawed you think PER is; 37.4 is fucking ridiculous no matter how you slice it; 25 represents a high-tier all-star/possible MVP candidate, 30 is an extremely strong MVP candidate, 37.4 is just fucking out of this world and downright inhuman shit), only guys like Bucher blame LeBron for his teammates missing shots and for LeBron not being able to singlehandedly close out all of Orlando’s shooters while also helping out on post D as Dwight Howard torched the likes of Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. It’s all LeBron’s fault for only doing everything he could and then some. Even with this improved roster I would still say that Rose had more help this year than LeBron did in 2009.

2010: had another flat out ridiculous year but ended up quitting against Boston in the playoffs even though in my opinion he had just enough help to be able to win a title. I can’t defend this postseason, so we’ll file this in the anti-LeBron cabinet; the evidence is still overwhelming from his other four years of regular season and playoff action.

For this year it’s a fair point to say that playing with Wade and Bosh makes it easier, but my counter: first it is totally unfair to ignore the rest of the roster; with Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller either injured or ineffective all year, the Heat were basically playing 3 on five all season, and they couldn’t develop any semblance of a reliable bench until late in the year; Miami doesn’t have all-defense big men, and their defensive excellence stems purely from their speed, quickness, rotations, and the ground covered by the perimeter players, so you can’t tell me that LeBron didn’t also carry a significant load given how integral he was to his team’s excellence on D and given that they played 3 on 5 offensively for a lot of the year. Look at the tapes – find me a game this year that the Heat have won when LeBron has played a terrible game; there are few such instances because his team was so top heavy and he had to bring it every night to keep the team competitive. Even in the playoffs when both rosters were healthy, LeBron outplayed Rose by such a large margin that I have a hard time using the East Finals as evidence of Rose’s superiority. Besides, while it’s true that Wade was playing in the series, don’t tell me that he was playing at his best; he shot 40% for the series, had more assists than turnovers, and didn’t even average 20 points per game. While his defense was usually there, offensively he was missing shots that he would normally make and he wasn’t finishing plays that he would normally finish. So don’t tell me that LeBron’s success in this series was due solely to him having the benefit of playing with another superstar because Wade was off.

So for Bucher to make the argument that LeBron never had to carry the kind of weight that Rose shoulders is flat out absurd and wrong. LeBron’s supporting casts in Cleveland were never as good as Rose’s, yet he had just as much team success and his playoff numbers in Cleveland dwarfed those of Rose in this year’s playoffs. Just look at this roster; now look at this one; tell me which one is better; tell me how many guys from the first roster could start for the second roster, and vice-versa; now tell me which one made the finals and which one didn’t; for the one that didn’t make the finals, tell me who stopped that team from making the finals; LeBron wins in terms of individual and team success and I really have no idea where the fuck Bucher’s argument is coming from. LeBron win’s every efficiency statistic and advanced metric (PER, true shooting, effective field goal percentage, rebound and assist rate, block and steal rate, and win shares on both end), has historically performed better with worse supporting casts, and based on the eye test (watching the Eastern Conference Finals this year) it was clear who was the best player on the floor. Ugh now I just feel stupid for having wasted my time on a troll like Bucher.

This is all going to sound like I hate on Rose. Again, I don’t. He’s amazing and maybe one day he will be better than LeBron. But right now there is nobody in the league that compares to Lebron’s all-around impact. Rose might arguably be more valuable to his team this year, but to say he is flat out better we would have to ignore efficiency, passing, rebounding, defense, and basically everything except humility and being a really nice guy.

On Re-evaluating the MVP race: All year I beat the drum for Dirk and he’s been validating my support for him. Watch how the run their sets and you’ll see that he’s the focal point of so much of what they do; he’s the first option, he’s the bailout option, and he’s they decoy all at the same time on all their sets. His unique shot-making ability and unguardability (I just made that word up) make this offense go because they don’t have anyone else who can create his own shot in any situation against any defense. Rose faces the same conundrum for sure, but I just think that Dirk faces that conundrum to a higher degree and has delivered even more so with his ridiculously off the chart shooting percentages and offensive efficiency. Dirk has carried them all year just like he did in the playoffs, and even if he isn’t the MVP I think his case was severely underrated back in April.

On the Lakers offseason moves: I’m personally not a fan of the Mike Brown hiring; last year we always complained about the Lakers ditching the triangle and going into isolation too much. Well what were Brown’s Cleveland offenses known for? Lebron-iso after Lebron-iso after Lebron-iso after Lebron-iso. Over and over and over again. Zero ball movement and fluidity, and by the playoffs teams were able to snuff out his predictable sets. This is the last thing the Lakers need. Brown will help shore up their defense and won’t completely bomb in the job, but I’m not convinced that he was the best available candidate over Rick Adelman or Jeff Van Gundy.

As for their personnel, I don’t think they need to completely blow up the team as Magic Johnson suggested. To me the biggest thing they need is some more talent and shooting on the bench and a swift kick in the ass. They’ll still contend and win 55-60 games and be a factor in the playoffs because of their size. But if they feel the need to shake things up then if I were them I would consider trading Andrew Bynum. That may sound crazy since he’s their youngest blue chipper but hear me out: Bynum carries the most trade value because of his youth, upside, and the paucity of old-school centers that can defend him (although on the flip side there were times when defensively he looked lost against Dallas, and he just looked like a dinosaur against their small lineups; unlike guys like Dwight or even Oden, Bynum lacks quickness defensively so perhaps that may be the only caveat on teams wanting to trade for him). But a veteran, win-now team like the Lakers it might not make sense to risk their title hopes on someone as fragile as Bynum. Why not use him as a trade chip to get some depth and bench help? Look, the Magic aren’t trading Dwight Howard anytime soon, at least not before the new CBA is established, and will Dwight really want to go to a team like the Lakers that’s on the decline and won’t have another superstar? Rather than holding on to Bynum based on the flickering hope of trading for Howard, why not cash in on him now when his value is high (once the basketball begins he’s always a risk for another injury) and guarantee that you have the pieces to contend for another title run before your core players are too old for that? Perhaps trade him to Minnesota for Kevin Love and some bench players; or maybe trade him to Toronto for a package centered on Bargnani or Ed Davis and solid role players, or maybe send him to Detroit for something like Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko, and Rip Hamilton? The point is by trading Bynum you can bolster your depth and guarantee yourself at least one more title run in the Kobe/Pau/Odom era rather than hold out hope of trading for Dwight and not having any other parts around him. It’s food for thought at the least.